Sometimes, one must speak to hear the words echoing through the void to actually find the meaning behind them... and other times... it would have been better if you hadn't opened your mouth.

Episode 103:  Backlash

By:  M. J. Cogburn and C. E. Krawiec

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 “Don’t tell me the obvious!  Put her down!  The medical team is on its way.”  Lothos zoomed in on Zoë’s face, using the many cameras he had in the complex, and his anger grew.  *As much as I despise your failure, my love, I would rather have you alive than dead,* he addressed her through her implants with the hope that she could still hear him.  *Thames had been correct when he told you that I always wanted you as my leaper.  However, darling, I also knew your skills would be better here in my complex.  At least that was the case until Alia slipped out of our hands because of Beckett.*

Thames did as he was told and laid her back down on the floor.  His hand lingered near her face a moment.  Zoë had been a part of his life for the past twenty-five years, and even the thought of her not being around to keep him in check disturbed him terribly.  He had barely accomplished that when the doors of Central Control slid open and the medical team, headed by Dr. Peter Hugen, Danielle Teasdale, one of the newest surgical residents, Olivia, and several other medical technicians, swarmed around Zoë to assess her status.

To Peter Hugen, the Assistant Surgical Chief of the complex’s hospital/surgical level, the moment he beheld the fallen woman, he knew instantly that time wasn’t on Zoë Malvison’s side; right now it was her worst enemy.  Barking short, sharp directions, two technicians quickly placed her on a gurney and headed back out the door.  But they had barely started for the door when time decided to cut the feisty Dr. Malvison’s odds further, as the thready pulse under Dr. Hugen’s finger against the carotid artery ceased.

“She’s crashing!” he barked.  He watched Danielle Teasdale climb up on the gurney, straddle Zoë’s body and begin administering CPR, pausing just long enough for one of the med-techs to intubate Zoë and begin bagging, manually pumping air into her lungs.  Waiting just long enough for the young resident to set a rhythm, Peter Hugen barked, “Let’s move, people!” then stepped back long enough for the gurney to be maneuvered out of Central Control then flew after them.

In the few moments from the time they left Central Control to the moment they entered the infirmary, Dr. Zoë Malvison hadn’t responded to the CPR, but Danielle Teasdale was not about to give up on a woman she had looked up to.  She continued her rhythm until they entered the medical emergency bay where an order for epinephrine was administered along with a life-saving jolt from a defibrillator. 

When the medical team was certain that they had a steady heartbeat and that she was back from the great beyond, they quickly set to work to prepare Dr. Malvison for immediate surgery. 

Dr. Hugen walked in after mentally and physically preparing himself for the task at hand, namely doing everything in his power to help the woman lying on the gurney.  Looking at the damage done to her body, he shook his head.  It was not good -- not good at all.  The bullet had severed a vital part of her spinal cord as it entered.  He glanced over his staff quickly knowing that they had pulled her back from the brink of death and were now headed for a long bout in surgery.  “Let’s go…” Even as Dr. Malvison was whisked off to the operating room as he hurried to scrub, he knew how hotheaded Dr. Malvison was and he also knew that he would never hear the end of how he couldn’t fix her injuries. It didn't look at if Ms. Malvison would be walking again, but at least she’d be alive and complaining – of that he was sure. 

The surgery took well over three hours, and, by the time Peter Hugen stripped off his surgical garb as Zoë Malvison was on her way to the recovery room, every member of the surgical team knew what he knew.  Back in his office a short while later, he sat down behind his desk, picked up the microphone and began dictating notes concerning the surgery as well as specifics orders for Zoë’s post-operative care.  Information that would, he was certain, be transcribed and placed in Dr. Malvison’s medical file, likely within the hour.

  "Because of the seriousness of the spinal injury, Ms. Malvison will require a wheelchair for the rest of her life."

Hearing Hugen's diagnosis, Lothos voice could be heard echoing in the infirmary as he growled, "Hugen, Dr. Malvison's condition... tell me."

Peter pinched the upper part of his nose as he heard Lothos' voice filling his office.  Straightening up in his chair, he repeated clearly his diagnosis and prognosis.  "Dr. Malvison's condition is stable.  I was able to repair most of the damage that was done, however, I was unable to repair the damage to her spinal cord.  She will have to have a wheelchair to get around in," he paused for a moment before adding, "An automatic wheelchair. Dr. Malvison is a very strong person, but she will be unable to move herself around without the aid of one."

Lothos didn't like that news in the least.  The anger that he had felt toward Beckett and Calavicci, especially Calavicci in this case, increased ten-fold.  "See to it that she receives the best aid possible," he instructed Hugen coldly. "And if she gives you any trouble, inform me immediately." Lothos knew that it wasn’t Hugen's fault that Zoë could no longer function as she used to, but he would not let her lay the blame on Hugen for it. There were rules in this complex and even she was going to succumb to them.

"Yes, Lothos," Peter responded to him and heaved a sigh.  Getting up out of his chair, he stretched his arms up over his head in an attempt to relieve some of the stress that had been put there.  He looked down at the recorder on his desk and reluctantly picked it up once more.  "Dr. Malison's lungs have also been affected by the shot.  She will require the use of an oxygen bottle to be strapped onto her chair.  If the need calls for it; and the condition worsens, then it will be in the patient’s best interest to confine her in bed."  Clicking off the record button, he set it back down on his desk then mumbled lightly under his breath, “If that happens, all hell’s going to break lose.”




       Tala, sitting at her workstation, her attention on the monitor in front of her couldn't help overhearing the conversation between Lothos and Thames.  Determined not to give the remotest suggestion by her actions that she’d listened, she pushed a button and observed that the few people that were coming in from their day off had just passed through the gates and were moving up the broad walkway to the guarded doors that led into the exterior complex building.

She particularly observed two young gentlemen who were talking quietly to each other.  One, a tall dark handsome man, about her age as well as his compadre - except for his blonde hair, both were quite a package to observe.

But Tala wasn't the only one watching the technicians coming into the complex.  Lothos carefully watched each person for any sign of impertinence.  They knew the moment that they agreed to work for him that they had to obey all rules.  The implants that had been given to them upon their arrival at the project, allowed Lothos to not only keep track of what they said and heard, but also where they were in the complex.  That same implant would allow him to inflict instant death if it were his will alone.

"They've arrived, Lothos, as ordered," Tala said softly not wanting to irritate him further.  She knew that he was already watching them, but she was required to tell him of everything that she observed at her post, even if it was redundant.  "All present and accounted for, and on time."

"Excellent.  Make sure that they report to their stations immediately," Lothos told her, watching her carefully.  There were only three people in the complex that he watched with this type of care: Zoë, Tala and Siren.

"Yes, sir," Tala said softly with a nod.  She looked into her screen and watched every person walking toward his or her post, but she continued to watch the two young men interestedly.  She watched as they headed toward the Logistics sector of the complex, entered their specific office, and watched as they sat down to work.  She quickly flipped through the other people that came on the island and continued to check on them.  However, she went back to the same two watching them for a brief moment before going back to her normal duties.  She sighed dreamily before looking back at the algorithms that were awaiting her perusal.

Lothos though continually running thousands of scenarios for finding Beckett, still caught the dreamy sigh.  "Something catches your attention, Tala?" he stated more than questioned.  "Perhaps it is those men that you have been watching with vigilance for the past ten minutes."

Blushing at the comment he made, she bowed her head lightly.  "Beg your pardon, sir," she said softly.  "It's just been awhile since I've caught anyone's attention, sir.  I apologize for any ill manners."  She closed her eyes and silently reprimanded herself for being so childish -- especially while at her workstation.  ‘You must act more adult-like, Tala,’ she thought to herself.

"It's not ill-manners to notice the opposite sex, Tala," Lothos informed her.  "However, you must school yourself to restrict your interests for when you are not on duty.  Is that understood?"

"Yes Lothos."  She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, thankful that she hadn't irritated him.  Stifling a yawn, she glanced down at her watch on her right arm and realized that she had been on duty for over twenty-four hours.  Blinking at the monitor before her, she knew that she shouldn't say a word about her shift.  She knew that Lothos would allow her to go when he thought she had completed her work.  Pushing her hair back behind her ear, she pinched the bridge of her nose trying to rid herself of the exhaustion that was threatening to overtake her.  She took a deep breath then plunged back into the Comparative Historical Data file and finished up with the data about Dr. Malvison being shot and Thames now researching two of the advanced leapers for the jobs of senior leaper and senior observer of the project.

Upon finishing her update on the C.H.D. file, she quickly pulled up the next file that was an algorithm that she had been working on for the past three hours.  It seemed that the algorithm that the Logistics sector had given to her wasn’t working properly.  She was not going to allow the algorithm to get the better of her.  She knew that she could figure it out; she just needed the time to do it.  Needless to say, her body was relaying information that Lothos could most definitely read.  The way that her body was slouched in the chair, the way that her eyes were squinting, along with the way that she occasionally yawned even though she tried to hide it told him more than anything else.

Lothos watched Tala with great interest and envy.  He didn't want this young woman to leave his presence but he could see based from her actions and from his own records that she had been awake for far longer than the human body could withstand before eventual involuntary shut down.  "Tala," he said interrupting her work abruptly. 

 Tala had been so intensely drawn into the algorithm on her screen that his voice startled her.  Pushing back the chair, she stood up and addressed him.  "Yes, Lothos?"

 "You are dismissed for the next twenty-four hours.  Return in precisely one full day," he instructed her. 

 She tried to hide the relief that flooded her mind, but as she looked down at the computer monitor, she realized just how close she was to finishing the algorithm.  "If I may, sir, I'm very close to finishing the last algorithm that you gave me.  I would like very much to finish it, and then be dismissed… if that is all right with you.  I'll even use my own time to finish it," she said softly hoping that he wouldn’t think that she was trying to wiggle more time out of him.

 Oh my beautiful child, how very proud I am of you,’ Lothos thought when he heard her request.  On the verge of collapse and you think only of your work.’  He focused on her face intently.  "How much time?" he demanded.

 "No more than thirty minutes, if that, sir," she swallowed hard at the demand.  "If it's a problem, sir… I… I'll leave it alone and finish when I return."

 "There is never a problem with loyal workers," he informed her sternly, his tone almost fatherly.  "You may remain.  However, if you fall asleep because of this work, you will forfeit the time that I have given to you for leave and return at your normal time tomorrow."

 Tala pulled back at the strand of hair that fell into her face as she nodded; however, it fell back in place over her eye stubbornly.  "Understood, Lothos.  Thank you."  Returning back to her station, she worked quickly and proficiently.  What she thought would take her thirty minutes to complete only took fifteen.  When she finished the problem set before her, she smiled victoriously.  ‘No algorithm is going to get the better of me,’ she thought as she stood up once again.  Pushing her chair back in under her station, she turned her head up to Lothos' orb.

"Lothos, the algorithm has been completed."  She wanted to add 'in less time that expected' but since Lothos already knew that, she kept her mouth shut.  "Since you did give me thirty minutes, is there anything that you would like me to accomplish to in the remaining time that I do have here?"  She learned a long time ago that Lothos' time was valuable and she was not to waste any time that he had given her to work on anything. Her mind roamed back to the two men she had seen earlier coming in from their small vacation and she cleared her throat slightly and hoped that Lothos had overlooked her mistake earlier.

 Lothos watched her with a sense of pride.  Seeing that she has overcome yet another difficult algorithm and in less time that it required her, it just added to the sensation.  "There is nothing that you can begin without having to stop within the remaining time allowed.  You may leave," he instructed her.  Before she had a chance to move, however, he added another statement, "I suggest that you spend some of your free time attempting to get to know the young men you were ogling at earlier."

 Tala ducked her head and blushed at his comment.  She bit at the inside of her lower lip and grinned.  "That might be plausible.  But I think that would be up to them as well."  She started toward the door, but once at the door, she turned back to him once again.  "May I come back later, to talk to you about my family background, Lothos?  I have some questions, and I can't seem to find the answers on my own.  Perhaps you could help me with them?" she asked as she raised her eyes up to his orb.

‘So, she finally asks.  I would have thought she would have brought up the question years ago,’ he thought.  "You may return and ask your questions when the complex is with minimal personnel," Lothos told her.  I only hope that Zoë is still alive for the 'family reunion.’

 Tala nodded to his answer.  "Thank you, Lothos."  She smiled at him and turned away, preparing to leave the room.  Thoughtfully, she looked at her hand as she waved it in front of the door to open it.  She didn't know how many times that she had said those words.  It seemed as if she'd said them all her life and just recently she had come to realize just how much she had because of Lothos.  The door opened before her and she turned back to him once more.

"I don't know how I deserve all the things that you have given to me since I've been here, Lothos, but I do humbly thank you for everything.  You have been more than gracious to me, and you don't know how that makes me feel.  Again, thank you."  Having said the words, she felt more assured in herself.  Smiling lightly, she turned away letting the door shut behind her.

 Lothos remained silent as he pondered her words.  ‘Soon, you will know all, Tala.  Perhaps more than you want to know.’

Heading down the hall, Tala entered the elevator and pressed the button to go to her personal quarters on the seventh level. The ride was quiet and taking a deep breath she knew that she would have to eat something soon.  The way that her stomach was growling it was quite evident that it had been some time since her last meal.  The elevator door opened and she exited it with a nod to a few of the other ladies who got in then headed toward her room. 

Upon entering her quarters, she immediately began to strip from her uniform.  By the time she got to the bathroom, she finished stripping off her underwear and threw them toward the pile she had started in the corner of the bathroom then turned on the shower.  After a moment, she stepped into the warm spray and let the water soak her thoroughly.  She took another deep breath before she began to wash up so that she could go get something to eat.

Grabbing a towel after her shower was over, she dried off then walked naked into her bedroom and pulled out a long tunic from her closet.  It was a loose fitting but elegant dress that went from her left shoulder then draped seductively under her right arm.  It showed off just enough of her bosom to give a hint of what lies beneath.  Looking at herself in the full-length mirror in the corner, she smiled at how it made her look then grabbed a pair of sandals and headed toward the door.

After locking her quarters, she headed back toward the elevator and got inside as the doors seemed to magically open in front of her.  She directed the elevator to take her two levels down to the cafeteria.  Upon exiting the elevator, she started toward the cafeteria.  Turning the corner, she bumped directly into someone.  The bump that both experienced was enough for both parties to reach out reflexively to grab at the other person to steady themselves.

 "Dr. Hugen…" Tala began as she stepped back from him.  "I… I'm so sorry.  I didn't see you."

Peter fixed her with a somewhat sharp look.  "And I didn't see you at eight o'clock this morning for your stress test, either," he reminded her. 

Tala blinked, looked down as she searched her schedule in her memory then had the grace to look down ashamed as she realized that he was correct. She castigated herself even before Dr. Hugen had a chance to. Ever since she was little, Tala had been having stress induced asthma attacks, and to ward off any attacks from coming, Lothos had wanted her to visit with Dr. Hugen weekly to make sure her stress level was fine.  The sessions seemed to help.  She hadn't had an attack in over five years. 

"Look,” he began in a less sharp tone, "I know you think they're a pain and a waste of time combined. But I'd rather you waste a half hour a week to be tested, rather than have you get in a situation that brings on an attack that might put you down for a day or more."  Seeing her nod, he took a breath. "All right," he accepted the nod, as her way of saying she'll be there for the next test.  "Be in my office at 2:30 and we'll do it then."  When she opened her mouth he fixed her with a stern look, already knowing she was trying to wiggle out of it.

"No disrespect, sir," Tala said in a slightly slurred tone as she raised her hand up to her mouth to hide a yawn.  "I haven't slept now in, " she looked down at her watch, "Twenty-seven hours, and I was planning on sleeping the rest of the day.  And with it being nine o'clock, I don't know if I can make it that long without some sleep.  Can we make it for another time?  I'm honestly not trying to put this off.  I'm sorry."

Peter looked at her with surprise and focused on her eyes.  She wasn't lying. He could see the fatigue written there.  "Twenty-seven hours? What is so important that you would neglect sleep for that long?" He knew that Lothos had some people work long hours but he also knew well that too many long hours were a hindrance, not a help.

Tala stepped back from Dr. Hugen and looked down a bit before looking at him in the eyes again.  "I was working on the C.H.D. file then an algorithm during the last leap that Zoë just did."  She swallowed hard and licked at her lips.  "I finished them over two hours ago.  The last couple of hours, I went back to my room, showered, dressed, and then came to eat something.... er… nutritious?" she questioned more than stated, the way she said it indicating plainly that she didn't like the food in the cafeteria.  "I'm not making excuses, sir, just telling you what happened.  That's why I wasn't at my stress test this morning.  But if 2:30 ... " she raised her hand to ward off another yawn and blinked at him, "... is the time you want me there, I'll be there.  I may be zombiefied, but I'll be there."  She grinned at him.

Peter smiled at her words. "Then go get some sleep. I'll reschedule for later tonight."

When Tala heard him mention rescheduling the stress test, she beamed.  This time the yawn was full-bore when it came and she couldn't stop it.    Blushing and looking apologetic at him, she said with a lopsided grin, "Your place or mine?"

Peter looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "My office will suffice, Ms. Tala," he told her firmly, not that he wasn’t amused by her words, but he needed to maintain that sense of authority that Lothos had given to him. "Be there at eight o'clock. And, no, we will not be alone for the test."

Tala had meant it to be a joke, and his response made her cheeks heat up like an oven set on broil.  Her mouth opened and shut and she felt like an idiot.  They had never been alone during the tests and she hadn't thought about it any other way.  She cleared her throat and said, "Yes, sir.  Eight o'clock, sir."  She nodded as she looked away from him.

Peter tapped her shoulder gently.  "Now, go get some food, then go get some sleep. I'll see you then."  He walked away from her and continued his way out of the cafeteria.

She pursed her lips lightly and nodded before bidding him a farewell and walked the other way.   She brought her hand up to her head and lightly beat her brow.  ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid.  He's your doctor not your boyfriend,’ she thought with a shake of her head.  An eyebrow arched up seductively.  ‘Even if he is a nice looking attractive man… you need to act more professional around him.’  She sighed and moaned lightly as she went to the cafeteria; grabbed a bagel and some cream cheese; paid for it then sat her tray down on one of the tables for a moment.  She spread the cream over the sliced bagel then began to munch on it as she headed back toward the elevator.  As she finished her small meal, she waited on the elevator car to come to her.

Entering into the elevator, she leaned against the wall, thankful for the solid support that it gave her.  She wished that she had just gone to bed when she had gotten off her shift, but she been hungry as well as in need of a shower.  But at the moment, fatigue got the upper hand as she leaned against the wall, closed her eyes and lightly fell into a slumber.  She wasn't aware that the elevator door opened onto another floor.  Nestled in the corner, she slept, her brain barely taking in any of the conversation around her. 




          The door to the Logistics Sector swung open with a bang.  Allen looked down at his watch.  It read: 7:45.  "Well, it's about time there, Kimosabe.  Where have you been?"  Allen asked as he looked up at his friend.  He couldn't miss the glare that was shot his way.

Trevor approached Allen's desk, slapped one hand on his desk, then slapped the other one down beside it, leaned in toward him, his eyes blazing and growled, "Getting my throat ripped out by the smarmiest, snottiest bitch to ever bay at the moon, that's where!"

Allen couldn't suppress the smile that crossed his face.  "Oh, you found a new love, I see.  Well…" he said patting Trevor's red cheek.  “It’s about time, dear.  It's about time."  Allen knew that he was walking on the edge of a razor as he patted Trevor's cheek giving him the usual ‘there, there’ routine.  But Trevor wasn’t laughing.

"Allen...." he gritted between his teeth, leaning in closer and watching Allen as he drew back. "Nobody could love that bitch!  I'll bet even her mother slapped her when she was born!  Probably why she's still doing it.  She’s probably hoping that maybe one day she'll get the right face!"  He stood to his full height and glared at his best friend and said, "But no way in hell am I her mother, and my face isn't open to public slapping!"  He stalked to his desk, threw himself into his chair and grabbed a pencil from his desk and broke it with two fingers.

Xavier opened the door to the Logistics sector and heard the young man who was standing there talking to his friend and assumed that this young man was the one that Siren had just encountered and by the way he was carrying on about her, he could tell that he was madder than a mother hen protecting her babies.  He watched the young man stomp away toward his desk.  Blinking at the man, he approached the blonde-haired man sitting behind the desk, and asked, "May I please speak with Mr. Trevor Conroy?"

Allen looked up at the older man standing before him and blinked.  He couldn't believe that this man… the man that so many people were afraid of … was standing before him.  Glancing back to Trevor at his desk, he said, "H…he's the one breaking pencils over there."

Nodding, Xavier walked over to the man sitting at his desk and couldn’t help but smile as he saw him break yet another pencil.  Siren must have really let him have it for him to be destroying the pencils the way he was, and from the young man’s description of her, he knew he was hot.  So, as quietly as possible, Xavier walked up to Mr. Conroy’s side before he bent down so that only Mr. Conroy could hear him.  "Mr. Conroy, I think it might be best not to describe your supervisor in such a manner publicly.  There are rules, sir...” Xavier straightened up and met Trevor’s eyes and continued, “…but that is not what I'm here to talk to you about.  Ms. Siren has requested the money for her cleaning."  Xavier could tell that Mr. Conroy was now surely irritated as another pencil broke in half.

Neither Trevor’s attitude nor expression changed as their eyes met.  He had heard the history ... and the rumors... about Xavier, but he had never been one to let rumors rule or dictate him.  ‘He'll get the respect his position and age demand.  Nothing more,’ he thought.  But the glitter in his eyes told Xavier what he thought of his suggestion and of Ms. Siren combined.  Standing up, he pulled out his wallet and handed Xavier a fifty-dollar bill.  As politely as the situation demanded but which a cool edge, Trevor told him, "She can keep the change."  Nodding respectfully to him, he finished with, "Good day, sir."  He then sat back down, picked up a pen and turned his attention to the work open before him. 

Xavier took the money from him and nodded to Trevor Conroy even though he had already returned back to his work.  Glancing at the young man across the room, he shook his head then left the room. 

Heading directly to the cafeteria, he retrieved breakfast for himself and Siren then headed back toward his quarters with their food.  Opening the door, he saw Siren sitting on the couch sideways, her legs pulled up in front of her.  Suddenly, she fell back onto the couch, flailing her arms out as she did so.  Wondering what was happening that she was being so melodramatic about, he calmly said, "Your breakfast, dear."

Siren moaned loudly.  "I'm going to go stir crazy if I have to stay in here because I broke that mask!  Is there anyway that I can leave?  I want to go to work!  And… and… explain to that pompous ass what happened."

Xavier set the tray holding their breakfast on the table.  To bring her back to reality and the moment, he walked over to her, took the fifty-dollar bill, folded it length-wise and slipped it down the neckline of her bodysuit.

"By the way," he said dryly.  "There’s the money Mr. Conroy owes you to have the suit cleaned."  He turned away then turned back to add, "He said you could keep the change."

Going back to the table, he took one of the plates from the tray as well as a glass of orange juice and began to eat.  He sat so that he could have a clear view of Siren.  The entertainment was going to be quite interesting -- as well as the day.

Surprised, Siren looked down at the fifty-dollar bill now sticking out of her bodysuit.  When she pulled it out she looked up at him questioningly.   "He did, did he?" she asked waving the money in the air.  "Well, now… that won't be necessary."  She smacked her lips and rose from the couch to get the breakfast that her father had so graciously gotten for her.  "So, where did you see Mr. Conroy?  Did you just happen to bump into him on the way to the cafeteria or what?" she asked taking a bite of the bacon.

 "Sit down at the table, Siren," Xavier paused between bites to say.  "I taught you better table manners than to stand and pick from a plate of food."  She made a face at him as she sat down as he went on.

 "No," he said as she took another bite of the bacon, "I went to his office."  Siren nearly spit the mouthful of food on the table.  "Careful!" he warned her.  He waited until she took a long swallow of orange juice before fixing him with an accusing stare.

"You what?!" she snapped at him, but quickly look at him apologetically.  "I'm sorry, father, but this is my battle.  Not yours."

Even though he had raised her as his own child, Xavier had never deluded himself that Siren was other than the child of Lothos and Zoë, and being such, he had deliberately raised her with strictness to rules, ranks, and respect for both of the former.  Many times in the past, Siren had learned, just as many others, twice her age, at any given time in their life, under his supervision or direction, that there were some things that he wouldn't put up with.  Attitude was one of those things.

"It may be," he snapped at her, watching as she paused with a forkful of eggs half way to her mouth. "But you show respect where it is due, Siren.  You're not a child, nor are you stupid," his words were sharp and cold.  "I am your father, but I am also very much your superior in this complex."  Siren didn't move.  "Now we can talk or argue, whichever you decide, but when you address me, remember whom you are talking to... even within the privacy of our quarters.  Is that clear?"

Siren placed her fork down and looked at her father plainly.  "Yes sir.  I apologize for my tone."  She didn't dare give an excuse for her actions - she knew better.  It was just best to apologize and try not to do so again. 

They finished breakfast in silence.  Only when they were finished, did she address him again.  "What shall I do about my mask, sir?"

“Lothos has advised that a new one will be finished and delivered here by eight o'clock tonight." Siren's look, and the way the knuckles of her right hand turn white as she gripped her fork extremely tightly, told him what she thought of that, but even in a temper fit, he had never known her to rail against Lothos in any way.  Just by looking at her, it was almost like looking into Nathaniel's face.  He remembered being present at too many fits of temper Lothos displayed during the years it took to set up this vast complex.

Laying his fork down, he reached over and patted her hand.  "I'll see if I can arrange for the corridors to be empty for a few minutes so that you can get to office without being seen.  There's a private entrance to it.  But..." he pointed his finger at the tip of her nose, his tone matching his words, "Don't you open it into the main office work area for any reason whatsoever.  Okay?"

‘Why is it so damn important that I can't be seen?  I don't understand.  If someone were to hurt me, I would think that Lothos and Xavier would have them put to death immediately.’  But still, she nodded at his words.  "Okay."  However, she raised her eyebrow and turned to him.  "Perhaps a brown paper bag would suffice for awhile." She grinned at him trying to make the statement a joke, but even as she looked at him, she knew that she didn't do well in the deliverance of it.  Before Xavier could say anything, she held up her hand.  "I'm sorry.  If you don't mind, I'd like to be excused to lay down and wait for eight o'clock to roll around."

Xavier swallowed the bite of food, took another swallow of orange juice then said, "Just a moment, Siren, I think you misunderstood me."  Siren turned back to him, puzzlement clear in her eyes.  "When I said I'd arrange to have the halls cleared so no one would see you," he said getting to his feet, "I didn't mean at eight o'clock tonight.  I mean within the next fifteen minutes.   The mask will be here tonight, but you have an eleven hour shift to do in your office between now and then."  He glanced at his watch, then back to his daughter's startled face.  "You've now got twelve minutes to get ready while I make the arrangements."

Nodding to him, she quickly went to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror.  Her face void of makeup, but her hair still up, she quickly undid the clip and unbraided her hair.  The wave from the braid remained, making it look as if she had meant for her hair to be wavy.  If she was to go out without the mask on, perhaps, she could try something else new. 

When Siren rushed out of the dining area, bent on pulling herself together quickly, Xavier went to the phone, picked up the receiver and pretended to dial a number.   He was actually listening to a dial tone while Lothos spoke to him through his implants, advising that he had ordered all halls and elevators cleared for the next ten minutes.  Softly, Xavier acknowledged his directions and hung up the phone.

Almost as if on cue, Xavier heard Siren call from the bedroom, "Ready when you are, dad."

Stacking the used dishes on the tray, he walked into the bedroom to see her sitting on the foot of the bed.  He couldn't help but catch his breath at the sight of her.  Except for sleeping, Siren rarely wore her hair down, but here she sat, looking expectantly at him, her long, wavy auburn hair loose around her shoulders.

"So I see," he finally said softly, smiling at her.  "And a more lovely 'ready', I've never seen.  Come on," he told her, "the halls are clear.  I'll walk you to your office."

Siren grinned at the compliment that Xavier gave her and she stood and headed over toward him.  She lightly caught his arm, and gave him a warm hug and laid her head on his shoulder for a moment.  "Thank you," she said softly before pulling away and started ahead of him. Coming to a halt, she waited for him at the door.

Xavier had walked through the complex countless times over the years, but it was eerie to walk in the halls knowing that you were the only one in the hall, that all the doors are sealed.  But Siren, who knew no difference, talked with him about numerous things as they walked down the hall toward the Logistics sector.  Finally, they reached the private entrance to her new office: Chief Supervisor of the Logistics Sector.

"Just remember what I told you about keeping the doors closed and locked," he admonished her gently.  "I'll be back at eight o'clock to escort you back to our quarters."  He gave her a hug and stepped back.  As she started to open the door, he put a hand on her arm, making her turn back to him a question in her eyes.  "All I ask is that you do your very best and … and make your father proud of you," he said with a gentle smile.

Siren smiled at his words.  Giving him a soft kiss on the cheek, she said, “That's all I have ever wanted to do.  Always."  Opening the door, she entered her office, then turned to close the door and lock it as Xavier had directed.  Going over to the other door that accessed the main office, she locked it as well, knowing that the click could be heard in the other office where Mr. Trevor Conroy and Mr. Allen McCalister's desks were.  Sighing, she shook her head and went to her desk to sit down, looking at the paperwork awaiting her there.

Seeing that Mr. Conroy had turned in a project, she sat down and looked at it before thumping the back of her hand with it.  Looking up at the door, she smiled knowingly and opened the report and began reading it.  Two hours later, she had finished it and found several mistakes that he had made. 

‘Now, how to do this without the mask on is a question,’ she thought to herself.   ‘I have to talk to him about it.’  Seeing the intercom on the desk, she knew that she could at least talk to him that way.  Glancing out in the room through the monitor set up in her office, she noticed that both men had gone on their morning break.  ‘I’ll talk to you when things have calmed down.  I’ll just go ahead and read through Allen’s reports and then talk to you this afternoon… yes… this afternoon,’ she thought to herself.



The dark red orb hanging from the ceiling darkened, making the room look as if blood was splashed over it.  “FIND BECKETT AND KILL HIM!” Lothos ordered, his voice thundering throughout the room.  “NOW!”

Thames jumped at Lothos’ tone.  However, a devilish smile appeared on his face and he felt tense muscles begin to relax a bit at his new orders.  “My pleasure, Lothos,” Thames responded, nodding respectfully to Lothos then started toward the door.

“Thames," Lothos’ voice stopped him.

“Yes, Lothos?”  It was as much the silky tone of Lothos’ voice as much as it was what he said next that wiped the pleased grin from Thames’ face.

“Since you and Zoë failed to find and kill Beckett and Alia, added to the fact that Zoë will never leap again, I am putting the entire responsibility for correcting that failure on you.”  Lothos noted the way Thames swallowed, hard and slowly as he continued to speak.   “I am charging you to select and test two candidates to take Zoë’s and your places as senior leaper and observer.”  Lothos paused, and in that moment Thames’ found enough of his voice to ask a question.

“How long…”

He jumped when Lothos’ voice boomed, “You have twenty-eight hours from this moment.”

Lothos focused intently on Thames’ eyes for any reaction to his statement as he added, “If you fail, you will be the one in the infirmary instead of Zoë, and it won’t be Beckett who causes your injuries.”

Thames swallowed hard at his words and blinked twice before saying, "Yes, Lothos.  Quite understood, sir."  With that said, he turned and left the room.  At first, Thames wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do.  Since he was in charge of the situation, he was now faced with who he should call upon to be the new leaper effective immediately and to get a new holograph to watch over them.  Even as he thought of it, he realized whom he needed.  The person who came to mind was the perfect person to be either and he knew that he could count on Vaughn Rickar.  Vaughn was one of those men who lived for either side of the Imaging Chamber.  

Heading toward the bachelor quarters on the fifth level of the complex, Thames couldn't help but smile.  Getting into the elevator, he pushed the button and waited patiently looking at the young women standing in the elevator and gave them a once over.  'God, why do I have to work around women who with just a glance at them could raise the temperature in the room about fifteen degrees?' he wondered.  Getting out on the fifth floor, he shook his head good-naturedly then headed toward Room 534.

Rapping on the door, he waited patiently for a response.  When he didn't receive any, Thames went ahead and banged a bit harder on Vaughn's door.  Again, there wasn’t an answer.

"Where are you, Vaughn?" Thames asked himself through clenched teeth. "Your expertise is required."

        More than a little put out that his first choice wasn’t immediately available, Thames started back down the hallway toward the elevator.  It was at that moment that chance favored him, as he looked up to see the man in question emerge through the opening elevator doors looking like he'd been through the ringer.  Vaughn’s brown hair was disheveled and his clothes wrinkled.  Thames tongued his cheek, grinning as his first choice approached, yawning tiredly. 

        "Did we... have a good night last night, Vaughn?"  The look that he received wasn't what he was expecting, but then again, he knew, with Vaughn, the look you got was never what you were expecting.  It privately irritated the most flamboyant of Lothos’ observers that the man before him had a way of getting under his skin with just a look.

            For Vaughn Rickar, being a leaper had its advantages and its disadvantages.  One particular advantage he had zeroed in on early in leaper training, was that when it came to women, the higher the rank, the better a guy’s chances to have his pick of whomever cared to look twice.  It became quickly apparent that Vaughn rarely had to wait for a second look.

        One of the disadvantages all leapers learned early on once promoted to the superior level was the, at times, maddening waiting to be called up for duty.  When he applied for leaper training, Vaughn Rickar had known exactly what he was getting into, knew that he could be killed during any given leap. Still, he’d thrown himself into the training, heart and soul. The initial assignments at the intermediate level had been so easy, in Vaughn’s private opinion, as to be laughable.  But in Lothos' complex, every leaper climbed the same ladder like everyone else.  How you got up it was up to the individual, and the tall, brown-eyed leaper with the come hither smile had climbed the ladder fast, never once looking back.

Only survivors, leapers who did whatever it took to survive and succeed, achieved advancement to a superior level ranking.  Upon achieving that ranking, it had been made clear to each one that the leaps would be tougher – “life or death” tougher.  Now, nearly two years since reaching his current level, Vaughn Rickar was still itching for his first superior assignment and the chance to find out for himself just how tough the leaps at this level really were.  But like the other dozen or so like him, Vaughn had run headfirst into the waiting.  Every day, his number one hope was that his talents would stand out just a bit sharper than those of his fellow leapers.

            Like every other leaper in the complex, at least those below the rank of superior, Vaughn Rickar had been given a duty assignment while waiting.   But a guy couldn't sit around on his hands while waiting for the golden opportunity to show up, especially when he was the son of a maintenance level chief with champagne tastes, expensive champagne tastes.  The wages Lothos paid for a third shift security guard, while better than some other jobs, still hadn’t been enough to support Vaughn’s tastes.  It had been just “stupid, dumb luck” when he had discovered a lucrative way to earn extra pocket money.  Having a friend who knew how to get his hands, covertly, on certain especially desired recreational drugs – pills only; anything smoked or injected ran a far greater risk of discovery -- was just the ticket.  It hadn’t taken long for him to start his very discreet and shady little side business.  What had taken time to build up was the small handful of very special clientele, certain people who would pay anything to get out of the complex by means of popping a pill.  Thus far, Vaughn had maintained as tight a rein on himself as he did on his ‘clients’.  The tiniest slip-up could very easily result in being ratted out by someone or worse, suffering instantaneous punishment if detected by Lothos.

            Yesterday, after five boring days at his duty station, Vaughn Rickar was ready for some action.... physically and monetarily.  After making eye contact with a couple of his special people and seeing the veiled desperation in their eyes, he made his plans.  During the day he picnicked with Casey, a 'newbie' in the housekeeping department.  Later that evening he burned more than a little midnight oil with Shannon, one of the three girls he openly dated.  In between 'rounds' with her in one of the topside gardens… ‘Gawd, what a body! And man, oh man, does that girl know how to use it!’.... Vaughn had made very discreet contact with the three most desperate of his clients, pocketing a satisfyingly large chunk of change.

        But, as all good things must end, so did his day and night off.  The sun was just starting to come up when at last he escorted Shannon back inside the complex, both looking like they had rolled in the hay, the bushes, leaf piles, you name it.  As they had passed the door guards, Vaughn caught the sly grin one gave him, answering with a wink.  They had seen him come back in from other all night dates looking far more...rumpled than at this moment.

        Shannon and he shared an elevator down to the seventh floor, the bachelor women's quarters.  There he took several minutes to kiss her thoroughly before allowing her to slip through the elevator doors, then continued to the fifth floor.

        Stepping out of the elevator, his thoughts pleased about all he’d accomplished...and gotten... throughout the night, Vaughn glanced up just at that moment.  Seeing Thames coming toward him from the direction of his quarters caused him to shorten his stride and slow his pace as Zoë Malvison’s preferred observer approached then stopped.  To his comment Vaughn gave him a look, one eyebrow cocked slightly, a 'not quite there' smirk on his lips.

            "Maybe I'll tell you...maybe I won't," he said, his tone smooth as sun tan oil on warm skin, as he looked the other man up and down.  "But it was damned better than you get any more."  Seeing the way Thames clenched his jaw, Vaughn let the smirk become an annoying little smile.  "What do you want, Thames?  I'm tired from all my... exertions, and just want to get some sleep.  I have duty tonight."

            For Thames, there was no way he could hide the way Vaughn's sly comment made him clench his teeth in response.  He knew the cocky younger man had no idea what he got; neither did he foresee getting into a sexual conversation with Vaughn Rickar begin with.  However, neither was he one to let an opportunity get past him.  Hearing that he was tired and just wanted to sleep, Thames nodded his head and started to move slowly around the younger man.  Putting just the right touch of nonchalance in his tone, he said, "Ahh, okay.  I understand, exertions and all.  Never mind then.  I'll find someone else who might want the promotion.  Sleep well."  Almost as an afterthought, Thames reached up and gave Vaughn’s upper arm two solid thwacks, then winked and walked on, determined to get into the elevator without the Leaper stopping him.  As he walked steadily to the elevator, Thames knew he’d be stopped.  Knowing Vaughn as he did, he knew the younger man wouldn’t give up until he got what he wanted.

        Thames' reaction just made Vaughn chuckle inside and grin a little wider at him.  He didn’t move as Thames stepped around him, gave him his standard couple of light arm punches then continued toward the elevators.  He waited a moment, half listening to what the senior observer was saying then continued toward his quarters.

        Correction…Vaughn took two steps before Thames’ last comments finally hit him.  Spinning on his heel, he dashed for the elevator, reaching it just in time to slap Thames’ hand away from the call button.  Grabbing him by the upper arm, he jerked him around to face him.  Without a doubt, the senior observer’s smarmy "I knew I'd get your attention" smirk irritated the hell out of him, but Vaughn was prepared to deal with it.  There was no doubt that he could and would deal with anything if it meant getting a shot a promotion, and he was after the ‘Senior Leaper’ title like a ravening animal.  He was hungry for it and ready to do whatever it might take to get it.

        "Screw sleeping!" Vaughn snapped, ignoring the 'gotcha' expression in Thames’ expressive dark eyes.  "What promotion?"

        He’d known it, had known that he would get the younger man’s undivided attention.  And without fail or a single doubt, Thames’ knew that Vaughn Rickar was perfect in his blunt questions and forthright attitude about promotions.

        "This morning, Zoë Malvison was shot in the back.  She's in surgery as we speak.  Doubtful that she'll be doing anymore leaping.  But, I know you, Vaughn," Thames said carefully, reaching out to straighten his shirt.  "You're not interested in senior leaper or senior observer."  He nodded his head as he looked up to see his eyes widen at just the mention of the titles.  "No worries, I'll find..."  He wasn't able to finish the sentence.  ‘Boy... when he wants something, his attitude certainly changes.’  Thames chuckled silently, so certain that he could almost feel the excitement coursing through the younger man’s veins.

        A starving animal slavering over a kill had nothing on Vaughn Rickar the instant Thames said the magic words, "...senior leaper or senior observer."  For the Leaper the way Zoë’s observer never looked into his eyes as he played at straightening his rumpled shirt, fiddling with the collar, the only conclusion he could come to was that the older man liked to play dangerously.

        Slapping his hands aside, Vaughn grabbed Thames by the lapels of his copper-colored satin jacket and jerked him close, bringing them almost nose-to-nose.  Leveling a stare at him that he reserved for a couple of his special people when they decided they wanted what he provided but didn't intend to pay, he snarled, "You found him!  Don't even THINK of looking at anyone else."  Vaughn had to give Thames credit.  He was no Zoë Malvison but he was crafty and smart; he had to be to have reached and kept his present rank. 

          The experienced observer raised an eyebrow at Vaughn's actions but never dropped his gaze.  But when he tired of being held by his lapels, Thames knew that he had the junior leaper just where he wanted him.  Only then did he release the bomb that he’d been holding back.

"You aren't the only person that has been approached with the privilege of a promotion,” Thames said smoothly.  “There are two positions - two offers made.  There will be a test of wits, charms, and brains.  Whoever wins it... becomes the new senior leaper."  Feeling Vaughn’s fists tighten again, Thames tilted his head back a bit, adding pointedly, "If you want to be in the running for a win-win situation…just keep holding on to my lapels.”




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